Six out of every 100 adults in the U.S. have long COVID, according to federal data.
It’s a condition often marked by chronic pain, brain fog and fatigue. And as COVID-19 transmission continues, data suggests the condition could become even more widespread.
That leaves a big question for HR: If long COVID is here to stay, how will leaders address the effects it will have on the workforce and subsequently the business?
To start, the U.S. needs to acknowledge its “ableism culture,” Disability Management Employer Coalition CEO Bryon Bass told HR Dive. “We’re focused on things that people can do, and wanting them to be 100% physically, mentally and cognitively capable,” he said. “And those that don’t fall into that particular definition are seen as less than.”
How can employers combat ableism?
“Employers are recognizing that they do need to do more to provide accommodations for individuals who have disabilities,” Bass said, noting the addition of “A” for accessibility in variations on the DEI acronym.
A concrete solution for employers, beyond compliance, is to “find ways to educate their workforce on the importance of being more inclusive, and providing more accessible work environments for employees.” Bass also noted that DMEC does provide educational tools and resources geared toward business stakeholders: employers, HR, and also managers and supervisors. Some resources are available even without membership, he added.
For example, DMEC offers the whitepaper Long COVID: Assessing and Managing Workforce Impact. (The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission also maintains a comprehensive tip sheet: What You Should Know About COVID-19 and the ADA, the Rehabilitation Act, and Other EEO Laws.)
Additionally, there are ideas HR pros can steal from what Bass has seen as head of DMEC. He noted a member company that he sees as the gold standard regarding long COVID management. The financial services firm formulated “return-to-work” and “stay-at-work” programs. These programs help negotiate workflows that keep an employee in the workforce, “rather than going out on a leave of absence,” he explained.
How does that negotiation work?
Even without a formal program, companies can still support employees with disabilities. Finding out what accommodations a worker needs is a start. But the interactive process may not have a clear entry point.
Many HR people, Bass has found, are expecting employees to “use the magic words of FMLA, or ‘I have a disability and I need a reasonable accommodation.’”
“That’s not something that the average person is going to just spew,” Bass said. A need for a reasonable long COVID accommodation may look like a worker having continual difficulties performing on the job or turning in deliverables — “whether it’s because they have a disability, or it’s because they’re a caregiver and they need to provide care for a family member.”
It’s also important to educate managers on long COVID symptoms and effects, Bass said.
Train supervisors who see this decline in performance post-COVID-19 to realize: “It’s not because they don’t want to do the work. It’s generally because they’re struggling with doing the work.”
The business case for addressing long COVID
Bass said the EEOC has kept its foot on the gas when it comes to filing discrimination-related charges related to disability.
“As a matter of fact, if we look at the statistics, disability discrimination is becoming one of the leading causes of complaints or actions that the EEOC is taking,” Bass said. An analysis from law firm Seyfarth Shaw supports Bass’ insight: EEOC filed 48 Americans with Disabilities Act lawsuits this fiscal year, compared to only 27 last year, with hearing impairments leading the ADA pack.
Bass also noted the newly-released EEOC 2024-2028 strategic enforcement agenda. Along with pregnancy, childbirth, and co-occurring medical conditions, the EEOC plans to stick up for people affected by “technology-related employment discrimination” and long COVID.
“They are highlighting specifically the COVID-19 pandemic and the fallout that has disproportionately impacted people of color and other vulnerable workers, including those with disabilities,” he said.
Likewise, the EEOC and the U.S. Department of Labor have also teamed up to make sure discrimination cases don’t slip through their fingers. “They are now partnering in such a way that, if they find issues that may fall under the purview of one or the other agencies, then they’re going to refer cases to each other,” Bass said. “That’s something that’s relatively new, that hasn’t really been occurring in the past.”
How COVID has changed ‘disability’
COVID-19-spurred disability conversations now also include mental health, of course. “The pandemic really heightened the amount of anxiety, depression and social isolation that was occurring. So now there’s this increased incidence of mental health challenges,” Bass said. “We are also seeing more discussion of mental health and how mental health might have an impact on the employee’s ability in the workplace to perform their jobs.”
To address that issue Bass suggested a simple question HR can ask leadership: “What is something we can do to provide at-work support mechanisms to employees who are struggling with mental health challenges?”
But it’s important to remember that all of these efforts work in conjunction with each other, according to Bass. Putting support programs and mechanisms in place is “just as critical as training,” he said.